Journey to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

A conversation with Principal Bassoonist, Fei Xie
By Emily Skala

Fei_shirtES: Tell me, when did you begin studying music, Fei?

FX: At a very young age. I am from a musical family. My parents are Beijing Opera instrumentalists, and my uncle is a famous Beijing Opera composer. I first started to learn piano because my uncle encouraged me to do so. He used to test me on a toy piano, and I was able to identify the notes when I was three years old. So when I was three years old, almost four (it was Independence Day in China), I had my first piano lesson. I remember he was a teacher who taught piano and accordion. He had about ten piano students, all pre-school age (it was actually like a day care center; I was there all day, taking naps, etc.), and I was the youngest one. After one month, actually, I was the only one left studying piano! The others all switched to accordion.

ES: What drew you later to you switch to bassoon?

FX: I was twelve years old and I wanted to audition for the Middle School Attached to the Central Conservatory of Music (Beijing). Most students audition on the instrument they have the most experience on. But the faculty member didn’t consider me to be ready on the piano, not advanced enough for my age. But I expected that. There was a family member, though, who knew that it was possible to audition for the wind and brass departments by playing the audition on piano and with no experience needed on the wind instruments: you apply in the “blank” category. So an aunt took me to meet with the trumpet and trombone faculty. They looked at my mouth and determined my lips were not ideal for a brass instrument. I was encouraged to go play for the wind department and see what happens.

ES: Oh, interesting! What did happen?

FX: I went in to play for a very nice lady and she asked many questions about my musical experience. Then she asked if I knew what a bassoon was. I said “yes” but I was thinking she was asking me about the tuba. This is because in Chinese the two words sound similar. One means big tube and the other means big horn. “Do you want to study bassoon,” she asked me. I said “I will study whichever instrument I am chosen for. In a sense, I didn’t choose the bassoon, it chose me. (Of course, it turned out she was the bassoon teacher!) Then my parents met her the next day. They were not very happy about this turn of events because they had hoped I would become a world famous pianist. When we arrived at her office the assistant bassoon teacher was there as well. I was not being offered a full scholarship, but something more like a fellowship or partial scholarship, which was not really as much of a problem as making the change from piano to bassoon was! Another faculty member at this meeting acknowledged how special the opportunity to go to the school was; that from all over the country students are trying to get in. In the end he advised us to accept the offer to enter the school no matter the challenges of switching instruments after nine years on the piano. This was emotionally hard for my parents to accept. But for me it was an exciting opportunity to join a boarding school and to get out of town. Tang Shan was four hours away by train.

ES: When did you realize the orchestra was your dream job?

FX: When I was in college, orchestral training became somewhat of a challenge for me. I did not have enough training in ensemble playing during high school, so it was quite difficult for me at first. I was placed in wind ensemble at Oberlin College Conservatory my first semester, in freshman year, and I was about the most clueless person in the group: I didn’t know where to start when a conductor was rehearsing (part of it was because my english skills were still quite low), and I had to constantly ask my neighboring musician students to point at my music to tell me where the conductor was talking about. The level the orchestra was playing in Oberlin was very high for me, and I struggled to catch up. It wasn’t until after a couple semesters of hardships in ensemble classes that I was finally placed in the big orchestra. After my second year of college, I started to get really good at playing in orchestra, and just so looked forward to every single rehearsal and concert. I took an audition for the Associate Principal Bassoon position in the LA philharmonic during my junior year and I was in the super final. Being so close to winning a job at this young age really boosted my confidence. That’s when I realized that having a job in a major professional orchestra would be a dream come true.

ES: What was the pivotal event that brought you to the US?

FX: When I dropped my school instrument by accident. I had to pay a fine and buy a new instrument. And this was a financial hardship. My family took out a loan to help me buy a new bassoon.

ES: That’s a little bit hard for me to piece together. How is it that this misfortune brought you to the US?

FX: We probably would never have been able to pay the loan off if my dad didn’t make the decision to persuade us to come to the United States. My parents were presented with an opportunity to join a Beijing Opera group in New York City, and they accepted. They later immigrated to the United States as Special Artists with the Extraordinary Ability. They have been performing throughout Ohio and Kentucky ever since they moved to Ohio. My parents actually came to The United States one year ahead of me, before I graduated from high school, and all I was trying to do my senior year was to work really hard, and to try to audition to come to the U.S. to study.

ES: Was there a moment that illuminated most clearly the difference between the culture of the United States and the culture of your birth country, China?

FX: There wasn’t a single clear moment for me, but rather most of the experiences I had illuminated the cultural differences. Gradually over time, throughout my college education, I was taught to think more freely and proactively. The cultural differences between the two countries are huge, and exist in many areas of life. There are so many fine details that I have experienced that it will probably take more than one interview to talk about them all!

ES: Did you experience “culture shock”?

FX: Very much so! From my first co-ed bathroom experience, to how a classroom is set up. I was pretty much “shocked’ every day in my first year of college.

ES: What is the thing you miss most about home?

FX: Most of my family and my wife’s family are still living in China, as well as all of our friends we grew up with. Technology is so advanced now that we can pretty much see anyone any time with just a swipe of the fingers, but sitting down together, having a nice exciting meal with family and friends from China is something we miss a lot.

ES: What are the things you appreciate most about being here in Baltimore?

FX: Number one is my job. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for winning the job with the BSO, and the more I play with the orchestra, the more I am attached to it. My colleagues and Music Director, Marin Alsop, are such constant inspirations for me that I am musically feasting all the time. Baltimore is also a multi-cultural city. It is very diverse and has quite a big asian community as well. I love all kinds of food, and the city sure has lots of different things to offer.

ES: Was there ever a moment when you found it almost too difficult to be making a life in a foreign country?

FX: The beginning was the hardest. Learning a foreign language was very hard, and learning the new culture will be something of a lifetime experience. I was never too worried about getting a job because I really got some of the best training in the country. Both schools I went to, Oberlin College and Rice University, really shaped me into somewhat of a professional musician early on, and I appreciate both of my bassoon teachers, George Sakakeeny and Ben Kamins, for taking me on and making me who I am today.

ES: If you had one piece of advice for someone planning to move to a new country and to a completely different culture, what would it be?

FX: I would tell them to learn the language as much as possible, make friends with native speakers, and be very open minded about everything you are about to experience.

ES: Is this lifestyle everything you had hoped it would be?

FX: I am really living the dream!

ES: If you had to do it all over again, what would you change?

FX: Probably I would exercise more! I guess I still have time for that.

ES: Thank you, Fei, for talking with me today and sharing your story. It has been really fascinating learning about your own personal journey to the BSO. I am glad to have the opportunity to get to know you better and I am certain your fans and colleagues will feel the same way.

FX: You are welcome. It was my pleasure.